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St. Paul, Minn. — It was an evening busy with St. Paul Winter Carnival visitors filing past the ice sculptures on display in Rice Park, cameras and children in tow. Upon arriving at the far end of the park, some were not sure what to make of the stage and bright lights set up around a mystery object covered by a tarp.
Curiosity trumped the cold for a crowd that began to catch on, when former Minnesota North Star Lou Nanne finally stepped to the podium and began a tribute to hockey coach Herb Brooks.
"Although the idea of a permanent bronze statue of this man could have been placed anywhere in the country," Nanne said, "it is St. Paul that holds the most memories of Herb Brooks. His accomplishments have inspired a nation, as many of you will see shortly tonight in a Disney movie called Miracle."
Buses stood idling nearby to carry VIPs from the statue ceremony to a $100-a-ticket advance screening of Miracle that was a benefit for the Brooks Foundation. Of course, most in this group did not need a movie to tell them the story of Herb Brooks and America's most famous amateur hockey team.
Brooks was killed in a traffic accident last August, not long before the entire 1980 Olympic team would be enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. That team held many of its practices at the St. Paul Civic Center, which stood where the newer RiverCentre is today.
Now, Brooks stands in front of the building -- his bronze face beaming, arms uplifted in permanent celebration of the clinching goal in the gold medal game against Finland.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was among the officials on hand.
"In many ways Herb Brooks never really left St. Paul," said Pawlenty. "Herb's life is a reflection of the American dream, and we're very proud that it's also a reflection of the Minnesota story. From east sider to world champion and difference-maker, Herb's life affirms Minnesota. And we salute and affirm Herb's life."
The statue was suggested by another native of St. Paul's east side, Mayor Randy Kelly. Kelly has first-hand memories of the emotions that swept the neighborhood when Brooks' team of little known college players -- many of them Minnesotans -- ousted the vaunted Soviet hockey team before claiming gold.
From east-sider to world champion and difference-maker, Herb's life affirms Minnesota. And we salute and affirm Herb's life.
"A lot of us thought of it as a David and Goliath sort of challenge," remembers Kelly. "And all of the young men from Minnesota ... we were just so proud. And to have an east sider heading it and winning it ... It was just unbelievable, a magic moment."
A red carpet and a velvet rope pointed invited guests from their motorcoaches into St. Paul's Grandview Theatre to see Miracle. Brooks' wife and two adult children were there. So were a number of hockey people, including some who played on the 1980 team. Rob McLanahan says his former coach was captured well by actor Kurt Russell, who adopted a number of Brooks' mannerisms.
McLanahan says references to the oil crisis of the 1970s and to the conflict in Afghanistan help convey the environment that led Americans to rally around the team on its whirlwind trip from obscurity to legend.
"We were in the right place at the right time," McLanahan said. "We got lucky. We were a shot in the arm for a country that needed it. It wasn't by design, it just happened to fall in place. And we rode the tidal wave that we'd created."
So much has changed in two dozen years that it's hard for some young Americans to understand the fuss the country made over its hockey gold medal. These days people expect the U.S. to compete for a medal -- the players are almost all from the NHL -- the Cold War is a history lesson, and it's hard to imagine the United States in the role of David.
As his wife photographed Herb Brooks' statue, hockey fan Tim Ryan of Inver Grove Heights acknowledged it's hard to explain the phenomenon of 1980 to those who didn't live through it.
"I think those things are so special, you don't explain them," said Ryan. "It's like, you can't explain Minnesota hockey. I didn't grow up here. I've lived here almost 20 years and I've learned Minnesota hockey. But I couldn't explain it to anybody. It's one of those things where if you weren't there, you don't get it."
City officials plan to place plaques honoring other prominent St. Paul natives on the sidewalk near the Brooks statue in what they're calling a "Path of Greatness."